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Married, with ASD: Talks

Relationships are hard. In my experience, the marriage relationship is by far the hardest. That's why I found it suspicious when I was a young married guy when people would tell me, "All you have to do is..." to deal with marriage issues. For instance, "Take your wife out on dates!" This reductivist approach ultimately led to frustration as the dates were nice but not a panacea to all marital problems.


Marriages are complex and full of complicated issues, so when my ASD clients tell me that they cannot keep up with the amount of information and speed of conversation in the "talks" they have with their spouses, I have a good idea of what they are talking about.


Many couples who discuss their issues expect to talk until things get resolved. However, most couples also discover that problems are not discrete (e.g., plastic goes on the top rack of the dishwasher, according to the manufacturer's recommendation) but complex and nuanced (e.g., you load the dishwasher like you care for my emotional needs).


"Talks," where a marital issue must be discussed, analyzed, worked through, and patched up, are historically hard for my clients, partly because of their pragmatic language and working memory deficits. For instance, my clients tell me that spouses bring up too many issues in these talks. They cannot keep up with all the topics and struggle to see how they are all related. They report that the conversation usually moves on to other issues before they can fully process the current issue. This is even though they have a nearly eidetic memory of the conversation. When their spouse says, "tell me what I just said," their auditory sensory memory has a perfect copy of the conversation ready to go. However, they haven't fully processed the conversation, so they struggle to "say it a different way," summarize it, respond to it, or even share an opinion about it. This process can be very frustrating for my clients and their spouses.


Talks also have an emotional element, which can cause problems in at least three areas. First, rather than lacking empathy, most of my clients, and most people with ASD, seem to be highly empathic. However, they tend to lack the ability to organize and make sense of empathic information. I call this "empathic reasoning." Marital talks tend to be overwhelming and confusing for my clients emotionally. Second, emotions can influence the average person's non-verbal communication. In my experience working with typical couples in couple's therapy, "how someone says it" matters even more in marital talks than in average conversations. Emotional context takes on increased importance, and my clients struggle to interpret non-verbal communication (note: this is called a Receptive Language disorder, and it's common in people with ASD). Third, emotions can make us speak faster. This is why a skilled and passionate lecturer will often slow down to make a point. The contrast between high emotion and slow diction is especially memorable to listeners. Spouses usually start speaking faster when they get more worked up, and my ASD clients struggle even more with the limits of their cognitive processing. Working memory gets bogged down, and my clients report they cannot follow the conversation because it's moving too fast.


What to do about this deficit is complicated and usually involves teaching the couple unique communication methods. One strategy I discovered years ago is converting the face to face talk to text-based talk. This strategy is contrary to conventional wisdom in such discussions, I know. When confronting a person, you should look them in the eye. However, looking a person with ASD in the eye and confronting them with fast, important, complex, plentiful, and emotionally intense information is counterproductive. Texting can "flatten" the conversation by slowing things down, limiting the amount of context-based and non-verbal communication (e.g., tone of voice) and allowing my clients to review what was said to ensure they didn't miss anything. The spouse usually finds this process very limiting and slow, but my clients generally appreciate it and do much better with this format.

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